Serving up summer: Keswick's new chef Aaron Cross

Keswick Hall has a new executive chef, replacing Dean Maupin, who left to eventually take the reins of the C&O Restaurant. That's some big shoes to fill, and 29-year old Aaron Cross knows it. Earlier this year, we ran into Cross in Richmond, and he cringed at the thought of the Hook coming into check out the new menu. "Give me a few months, please?" he said. We obliged.

Back in January, the storied Tuscan-style luxury hotel, which also has an Arnold Palmer-designed golf course, changed owners when Richmond-based businessman and philanthropist William H. "Bill" Goodwin Jr., who already owns the luxurious Jefferson Hotel (among others across the country ) purchased the property from corporate owner Orient-Express Hotels Ltd. for $22 million. Cross had been the sous chef at Lemaire in The Jefferson Hotel, and  this year Richmond Magazine recognized him as one of the city's rising culinary stars.

Clearly, the new ownership wants to make sure that the restaurant at Keswick Hall succeeds. Not only was Cross promoted to executive chef at Keswick, but the Jefferson's executive chef, James Schroeder, also moved to Keswick to become the food and beverage director.

Cross is young. And he's humble about his prospects. In fact, during an after-dinner conversation he reveals that he's not even really sure yet what he ultimately wants to do with his life. Meanwhile, filling Maupin's shoes has been enough of a challenge. And Cross doesn't feel like he's yet put his special imprint on the cuisine and culture of the restaurant, but he's getting there. And what's that imprint? Think of the best food a particular season has to offer, like a summer peach so ripe you practically have to drink it, or local honey, apple butter, and some Caramount goat cheese. Fish, nuts, fruit, greens, summer's bounty.

"It's been a big learning curve here," says Cross, "having to work in Dean's shadow. It will probably take me a year and a half to get things right."

Still, things are pretty right.

"Right now, it's pretty easy and fun," says Cross. "You just take summer, put it on a plate, and serve it up."

He's being modest, of course. A fried oyster features a crust so light and thin, yet with a wisp of crispiness, that it can slip past your tongue unnoticed if you're not careful. Scallops flirt just the right amount with rawness. Sweet mingles with spice and tang like a perfect diplomat.

Cross has great confidence, tempered by a healthy amount of doubt, and you can tell he's still amazed to have found himself in this position. He's also discovered Mas and chef Tomas Rahal, a good sign, and appears to be sufficiently curious about what other chefs in town are doing. Though cooking school trained, he admits it may have been a waste of money, and that simply learning from the ground up is the way to go. Indeed, Cross recalls being invited into a restaurant kitchen as a young boy, and says he's been fascinated by the chaotic display of equipment, flames, utensils, and hurried activity ever since.

Fortunately, Keswick Hall has retained the services of sommelier Richard Hewitt, who showed us a new wine list elegantly installed on an iPad. Touch varietal, region, price, and up they come for your finger scrolling pleasure. Along with the scallops, Hewitt served up a Spy Valley Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand so refreshing and gentle on the palate that you had to keep drinking it to remember the sensation. Of course, there was also a wonderful homegrown offering: an Ediths Viognier Reserve, actually made by Keswick staff at Virginia Wineworks from grapes grown at William's Farm in Amherst.

Overall, Fossett's may have something going with its new acquisition. It'll be interesting to watch the kitchen evolve under chef Cross.

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1 comment

Compelling stuff McNair... Sounds like this guy is scared shitless and pretty much doesn't want you to eat here. Done.